Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game
Reviewer: Philip Smith
Overall: 8.5 = Excellent
In the annals of digital role-playing games, there are few series as strange, fascinating, or inconsistent as Drakengard. The first, developed by Cavia and published in 2004 by Square Enix, was a morbid tale of revenge featuring a cast of bizarre characters led by a silent psychotic protagonist whose bloodlust was matched only by the game’s almost aggressive repetitive gameplay. Its sequel, once again developed by Cavia but published by Ubisoft, was released two years later and presented players with a completely different setup that featured more polished and less repetitive gameplay but also a less memorable cast. Nier, based off the last of Drakengard’s five endings, was a spin-off that managed to take the best of both of its predecessors with improved mechanics, a solid story, and a great cast. The series managed to build a sizable fan base despite its recurring issues, winning players over with its earnest weirdness and a sense of self that was so strong that it made the odd seem normal.
For as much as series fans enjoyed Nier, not even the most diehard amongst them would have predicted a Drakengard 3. However, not only did Square Enix greenlight a third entry, with many of the developers from Drakengard and Nier returning to form a team at Access Games, they also responded to fans’ positive feedback by releasing the game physically in stores as well as through PSN. This review is based off the PSN version, which is worth noting, considering the technical problems that will be mentioned shortly. The bad can wait, though; let’s start with the good.
As this review stated to come together, I began to realize that it increasingly sounded more like an apologia. It’s not that the game’s myriad technical and mechanical problems escaped notice—that’s actually impossible, given their number—but that they did little to diminish my enjoyment of the game. Of course, what the player gets out of the game is also heavily determined by their expectations. Those wanting a more traditional action-RPG experience will be disappointed with Drakengard 3, as will those wanting the highly polished fare that typically comes from Square Enix. There are no knights in shining armor, plucky rebels fighting an oppressive empire, or messianic saviors here. Instead, there’s an aggressive, foul-mouthed heroine with a young dragon companion that matches her dourness with enthusiasm and optimism, along with a party that includes a sadist, a masochist, a lecherous old man, and a (self-aware) ditzy pretty boy. The standard rolling hills, bunting-strewn capitals, and homely hamlets are replaced with health-siphoning deserts, poisonous forests, and overgrown ruins. And players don’t leave safe villagers or monster-free valleys in their wake, but blood…lots of blood.
Despite its off-kilter themes and enthusiastic embrace of dismemberment and gore, a basic description of the game wouldn’t set off any alarms. A cursory glance would find that many genre standards are present and accounted for, including an expansive arsenal of several upgradeable weapon types (bracers, chakrams, spears, and swords), weapon-specific attack combos, recruitable allies, treasure chests filled with loot, and a shop in which to spend all of that hard-earned coin. The protagonist, Zero, is a powerful warrior and one of six Intoners, female bards who brought peace to the lands and maintain the harmony through the power of their songs. She is capable of switching between one of each weapon type on the fly, even linking hits between the two, parrying enemy attacks to reflect arrows and knockback aggressors, and dashing to avoid blows and cancel out of attack animations. She can enter her own feral-like Intoner mode for taking down larger enemies and clearing out crowds.
Look a bit closer, though, and players will find that all is not quite right. For instance, Zero can only enter her Intoner mode when she’s been doused in enough sacrificial blood. And she’s out to not to help the other Intoners but to kill them, never mind the fact that they also happen to be her sisters. In effect, the blood that powers her flows from the soldiers who are fighting to protect the peace; she’s effectively killing the realms’ heroes. Whatever traditional elements the game has are quickly overshadowed by Zero’s nonchalance at dismembering dozens of soldiers, constant insulting of her companion Mikhail, a young dragon recently reincarnated, and the continuous subversion of genre tropes with cheeky humor and overwhelming violence. Victory speeches and smarmy mythological creatures are quickly interrupted with swords, explosions, and buckets of blood. Not only is the action ridiculously gory, but it’s frequently hilarious. The game is as funny as it is violent, what with sudden censor screens featuring bright cartoon-style characters blocking out particularly gruesome kills, Mikhail’s continual befuddlement at the double-entendre-laden banter, and the almost uncanny sense of comedic timing.
For as frequently foul mouthed and talkative as she is, Zero remains largely mum about her motives throughout most of Drakengard 3. A series of novellas have been published online that provide backstories to each Intoner and flesh out their personalities and role within the world, but all of that is left aside throughout the game. I didn’t mind this approach because the added mystery of why Zero was on a rampage made the hunt all the more intriguing, but including the novellas on-disc would have been a great way to satisfy those who find the sisters a little flat. They would also help for those who aren’t patient enough uncover the full reason behind the killings and the world’s slow slip into insanity because, as with the previous games, this will require playing the game through several subsequent ‘branches’ once the main campaign is finished. While the Intoners are never given much time, their quirks are revealed by their Disciples, who latch onto Zero for the rest of her journey once she emerges victorious. Unfortunately, the Disciples do not have missions dedicated to them as the allies did in first Drakengard, but a bit more can be eked out during a few downtime scenes, with each offering extra bits of dialog if engaged. The game’s focus is on Zero, and despite some strong lore, players will have to look elsewhere to really delve into the universe.
I normally don’t find vagueness appealing, particularly because of its frequent use as a crutch for ham-fisted stories, but there are so many strange and curious elements scattered throughout Drakengard 3 that I found spotting and analyzing them to be as interesting as Zero’s motives. Whether it was the sound of what seemed to be a gun used when selecting menu items, the use of thumbtacks and Polaroid photos in the framing narrative, the mention of a cataclysm in the Iberian Peninsula, the date of 1000 A.D. but the presence of dilapidated modern metropolitan cities, or the peculiar loading-screen texts that initially appear to be translation errors, there was always something that caught my eye and kept my attention. I was constantly wondering where I was, when I was, and what exactly was going on, and the game did a marvelous job of dropping just enough breadcrumbs to offer a sense of progression while remaining satisfyingly enigmatic.
A particular highlight of the game is the audio and localization. The text is especially sharp, and the accompanying voice acting is great throughout, with the actors hitting some particularly tricky comedy beats. A soundtrack packed with fantastic music does a great job adding to dialog exchanges and the increasing sense of chaos and inevitability; in fact, it’s so good that I bought the soundtrack before finishing the game. Out of the cast, the standouts are undoubtedly Zero and Mikhail, where the former is suitably gruff most of the time, and her shift in tone as she slowly connects with certain characters is both subtle and believable. The real surprise, however, is Mikhail, whose high-pitched voice should have quickly become annoying but instead ended up being a real treat. What makes the character so likable is the inevitable goofy follow-up comment that makes any whining or false bravado genuinely funny and incredibly endearing. I don’t think I’ve ever played such a violent game that’s quite so charming.
What were far, far less successful were the technical improvements that were supposed to be done for the North American release. The Japanese release was plagued with graphical issues, including frequent bouts of slowdown and screen tearing that rendered some battles into slideshows. Despite assurances from Square Enix representatives that the problems would be addressed for the North American release, it still suffers from the same glitches. The framerate can drop like a rock during hectic fights, and even when all of the enemies have been cleared, rotating the camera will cause noticeable tearing. The various problems do not always occur, but there is rarely a time when an area is cleared without something going wrong. Making matters worse is a camera that will pivot randomly, despite a lock system that works well when the game adheres to it, and screens that become filled with objects due to items remaining solid instead of becoming semi-transparent. Slowdown can throw off the rhythm necessary to link the longer combos, though most of the weapons have short enough attacks so that enemies can still be cleared with relative ease, thanks to the dash feature, but that does little to negate the glaring problems that should’ve been addressed.
As with previous Drakengard entries, the game can also be repetitive. This is largely the result of the game trying to squeeze out more gameplay than the enemy variety or mechanics can sustain. There is actually a decent amount of enemy types, though their designs are a marked downgrade from the main cast. Unlike the first two games, combat takes place in small, confined areas with a few dozen enemies at a time, rather than in open areas with hundreds, which gives the game a quicker pace, making long-term play more palatable. A few knocks against the new approach is that Mikhail cannot be summoned during battle, and when he is controllable, it’s often indoors or in confined areas, which can cause the camera to jerk around and be generally confusing. There are a few aerial missions, but as with their ground-based counterparts, they take place in restricted areas and, as a result, play more like an on-rail shooter.
The requirement of going through side missions commissioned by the shopkeeper Accord highlights some of the more frustrating elements, namely the camera not showing enough of the surrounding area and the locking system not working properly. That completing many of these is required to see the true ending is unfortunate, as many will tire of the frequent exposure to the technical problems before seeing them through. This is especially true when it comes to a rage-inducing final boss that comes with no warning of the accompanying sudden shift in gameplay, lacks any of the checkpoints that made the previous levels so manageable, is almost contemptible of the player’s time or patience or good will, and is buffered by an unskippable intro that’s nearly 40 seconds long—there will be a lot of dying, and that time quickly adds up. It’s in moments like those, or when a massive, screen-dominating centaur suddenly goes from a smoothly animated beast of death to a jerking, stuttering joke that I wondered how a studio so adept at making such a self-aware, often ingenious game can let such terrible scenarios play out. In truth, I actually enjoyed the combat system, thanks to the ability to quickly swap weapons to continue combos, earn more blood by mauling defeated enemies, dash and block canceling attack animations, parrying attacks, and Intoning the hell out of hordes of enemies. Regrettably, it doesn’t get to be much more than serviceable due to the numerous technical and mechanical flaws. I can only hope there’s a patch in the works to address the glitches, as the game doesn’t just need one so much as it deserves one.
Drakengard 3 is a great experience despite not always being a great game. However, my complaints about the technical problems or those elements of gameplay that fell short pale in comparison to how much I enjoyed myself. The cast of characters is one that I would have easily followed for several more hours, and seeing them interact as I tagged along, attempting to uncover clues to unravel the ongoing mystery, made for a far more memorable time than most other titles on the market.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)